On November 1, the same day his book was released, I interviewed Derek Sandhaus about his new release, Drunk in China. Read the full interview: Interview with Derek Sandhaus, author of Drunk in China. We talked about a wide-variety of topics, including Korean soju. The section on Korean soju didn’t seem to go with the rest of the interview, so I post it by itself here.
Not to distract from baijiu, but you know a little bit about other Asian liquors, too. Another liquor readers of this blog are interested in is soju, Korean liquor, and it has changed over time. I was just thinking, the old-fashioned style of soju has a higher alcohol content and more complex flavor, and it kind of reminded me of the taste of baijiu when I tried it.
The old name for baijiu before the 1950’s was shaojiu, which is what soju is called in Chinese. Soju in Korea was very similar to the kind of baijiu they make up in Northeastern China and Manchuria up until very recently. Very strong, grain-based. But what happened was in the 1960’s, Korea was having rice shortages after the Korean War, so the government passed a law saying that, first, you couldn’t use grain to make alcohol, and secondly, you had to distill it up to a very high ethanol level. Basically, soju became industrial-level ethanol with added water. That’s kind of like how they make vodka and other kinds of neutral white spirits.
So, basically, because that rule in the 1960’s, what is now called soju is not what used to be soju. Now it has become a kind of tapioca or sweet potato vodka. In recent years, there has been an effort among some producers to bring back a more traditional variety.
Derek Sandhaus is the author of a new book on China’s national liquor, baijiu, and the culture surrounding baijiu. His book Drunk in China has been released today.
I was fortunate enough to interview him over baijiu and spicy food at Washington, DC’s Sichuan Pavilion on the day Drunk in Chinacame out. Sandhaus is a very you-hao and re-qing person (friendly and hospitable/full of warmth). Having read excerpts of his book, I can say his re-qing and you-hao also come out in the book, which is one of the few English language works about bailiu. (Sandhaus has also written a guidebook about baijiu, Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits.)
Drunk in China is focused both on the story of baijiu, its history and cultural impact, and partially on Sandhaus’s story in China. Sandhaus has been in China on and off since 2006 and also authored Tales of Old Hong Kong and Tales of Old Peking.
While baijiu often tastes harsh to foreigners on their first (or second, or third…) try, Sandhaus advises foreigners not to be dismissive.
“One thing that’s very important is that at the moment you encounter something that really blows your mind is to not immediately discard that experience. Most of the world hasn’t gotten to that reflective of a state when it comes to baijiu, but had I not gotten there, I would have missed out on so many amazing experiences interacting with the people I meet in China,” he said.
Remarking on the lively atmosphere surrounding baijiu drinking in China: “If this were a restaurant in China and we were drinking baijiu together, the night would reach the state at a certain point that they call re-nao [roughly translated as “exciting”/“lively”], “loud and hot,” where you’ve been eating for a while, you’ve been drinking for a while, you’re kind of drunk on the spice, you’re drunk on the liquor, and you’re in this mood of pure joy. You can bounce around a little bit; you can go sit at a stranger’s table and make a toast to them, invite them to join in your revelry. ”
In addition to writing, Sandhaus is the cofounder of Ming River Sichuan Baijiu, which is available in New York, California, and Oregon in the U.S.